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Effects of Acute Stress on Cognition in Older Versus Younger Adults


Does acute stress differentially alter cognitive functioning in older versus younger adults? While older adults may be better at handling stress psychologically, their physiological systems are less elastic, potentially impairing the cognitive functioning of older adults after a stressor. We examined cognition following an acute stressor among older (n = 65; ages 60-79) and younger (n = 61; ages 25-40) adults. Participants were randomized to complete the Trier Social Stress Test (TSST) in one of three conditions: (a) negative feedback, (b) positive feedback, or (c) no feedback. Participants reported mood states and appraisals of the speech task and we measured cortisol via saliva throughout the study. After the TSST, participants completed standard cognitive tasks to evaluate cognitive flexibility, problem solving, and short-term memory. Results showed that after the TSST, older adults took longer to solve problems compared with younger adults, though they were able to solve the same number of problems. Older adults showed less cognitive flexibility compared with younger adults in all conditions, a finding that was partially exaggerated in the positive feedback condition. There were no age-group differences in short-term memory; however, for older adults greater perceived resources and positive affect were associated with better memory performance. In sum, older and younger adults were both affected by acute stress, and older adults were not more (or less) vulnerable to the effects of stress on cognition, though they did show stronger associations between self-reported affective states and memory performance. (PsycInfo Database Record (c) 2021 APA, all rights reserved).

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